Republican Gov. Matt Bevin and his Democratic challenger, Attorney General Andy Beshear, squared off in their first official televised debate Thursday. At the hour-long event in Paducah, the pair took aim at one another over who has Kentuckians’ best interests at heart.
Beshear painted the incumbent as an "out-of-touch" bully who has shortchanged the state’s teachers and public workers while lining the pockets of his friends and associates. The attorney general also pushed back on a key Bevin talking point – namely, that business investment and jobs have enjoyed record growth under his watch.
"I am done throwing tax incentives to out-of-state CEOs to create cut-rate jobs where you cannot raise a family," Beshear said. "We are going to generate new revenue. We're going to put that in the pension system, and we're going to free up dollars in the general fund to make sure we fully fund public education."
Beshear pointed to expanded gaming and medical marijuana as potential sources of revenue, but Bevin said proponents of the former ignore societal costs and the latter should not be taxed. The governor added that neither initiative would begin to generate enough funds to turn around lagging pensions, repeatedly pressing his opponent for specifics on how he plans to fund his campaign promises. Bevin warned it's going to take years to dig Kentucky out of financial holes created under mostly Democratic majorities.
"I wish I could tell you that hey, don't worry, Uncle Sugar's going to come down from Frankfort and just give you all money, help you hire people," the governor said. "The money does not exist. This is a hard and brutal reality."
Anyone paying attention to political ads would recognize most of the attack lines in the Western Kentucky debate, hosted by WPSD, but the two candidates brought new intensity to one feud in particular: a state settlement with Purdue Pharma, the maker of painkiller OxyContin. In the only heated exchange directly between the candidates, Bevin accused the Democrat of profiting from the $24 million settlement.
"He defended Purdue Pharma against the people of Kentucky," the Republican said. "It was an absolute crooked deal between him and the outgoing attorney general, who got $4 (million) of that $24 (million) to go to a law firm that didn't even have a contract with us."
Beshear labeled the allegation a "conspiracy theory," saying, "I was not a part of settlement negotiations in any way. I haven’t made any decision related to the case other than to recommend to use the proceeds to help fund treatment.”
Questions in the debate primarily dealt with budget matters, including pensions, the Kentucky Wired broadband project, Chinese investment in the commonwealth, and funding new school safety mandates passed this year. The gubernatorial hopefuls also took a handful of unrelated shots at each other – with Beshear raising objections to Bevin's use of a state plane and the governor chiding the attorney general for veering away from questions with "memorized" answers.
The debate was the first of five scheduled before the general election on November 5.